Archive for ‘film’

June 20, 2011

a bell in every tooth

by Megan Abbott

“I don’t want to be that much in love ever again.”                                —Elizabeth Taylor

I’m reading Furious Love (not to be confused with Furious Love), which recounts the tumultuous romance of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Prior to reading it, I had no burning interest in the pair but was drawn to it because it’s co-written by Sam Kashner, author of the vivid, gossipy Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties, one of my favorite tinseltown books.

As I began, I suppose I expected the Liz-and-Dick relationship to be some kind of amalgam of Frank and Ava and Albee’s George and Martha. Both analogies have significant weight, but the depth of their connection to each other is woundingly touching, and the giddy, intense bond they had is kind of a heartbreaker as you see the increasing damage done by mind-numbing drink and other excess, career disappointments, Burton’s depression, family sorrows.

I have always loved Richard Burton and he shimmers in these pages. I think one of my favorite cinematic moments is a fleeting moment from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. After a night of epic drinking the beleaguered George, watching his wife tantalize another man on the dance floor with some ribald hip shakes, announces wearily—but with distinct admiration, “You have ugly talents, Martha.”

One of the gifts of Furious Love is the rich sense of Burton’s Welsh upbringing, which, to me, feels terrifically exotic and dramatic, with rich descriptions of the life of miners (Burton was the son and brother of miners), Burton’s love of “lava bread,” a Welsh concoction of a “froth of boiled seaweed “plunked down on the plate like a cow pat,” the way his brother’s face was “pocked with little blue marks,” from his years in the mines.

But my favorite part of the book might be the words offered up by Richard Burton himself, both from his various writings, diary entries and from his love letters to Taylor, which she permitted use of for the first time. Many are hopelessly romantic. Some are deliciously dirty, with Burton telling Taylor how he longs for  her “divine little money-box,” the “exquisite softness of the inside of [her] thighs,” and for the “half-hostile” look in her eyes when the pair is “deep in rut.”  That “half-hostile,” to me, is the mark of writerly (and perceptual) brilliance.

While Kashner and his coauthor Nancy Schoenberger are careful not to push the point, there’s a piece of Burton’s stormy past that seems to whisper in our ear constantly as we understand his connection to Taylor. His mother dead when he was only two, Burton was raised mostly by his sister, Cis, whom he viewed in saintly proportions and about whom he wrote lovingly:

I shone in the reflection of her green-eyed, black- haired, gypsy beauty. She sang at her work in a voice so pure that the local men said she had a bell in every tooth… She was naïve to the point of saintliness and wept a lot at the misery of others. She felt all tragedies except her own. I had read of the Knights of Chivalry and I knew that I had a bounden duty to protect her above all creatures. It wasn’t until 30 years later, when I saw her in another woman that I realized I had been searching for her all my life.

We’re always, in our relationships, looking to repeat, recapture past ones, aren’t we? And it isn’t always (or even mostly) a bad thing. Burton and Taylor saved each other for a while, until they couldn’t any longer. As Taylor wrote to Kashner, when releasing Burton’s letters to the biographer, “We had more time but not enough.”

May 24, 2011

More about Columbo-as-trickster

by Sara Gran
Columbo's warrant card and badge in the episod...

Image via Wikipedia

Megan left a comment on my last post that blew my mind a little bit; Columbo as trickster. Especially because I’ve listened a few times now lately–and will probably listen a few times again–to this interview between writer/amateur anthropologist Erik Davis and astrologer/writer/activist Caroyln Casey. In the interview they talk a lot about how the trickster relates to power–how the trickster doesn’t try to generate her own power to force her way through a situation, instead she playfully offers herself as a conduit to power to be used for the good of all (or something like that–listen to the interview!). Carolyn offers as one example, the idea of “fighting” global warming. Fighting, she points out, is what got us into this mess. Instead, why not use the language of the compassionate trickster? She mentions a friend who was trying to convince an Evangelical group why clean energy was important: do you want to run your cars on this black gunk that comes from very close to Hell? Or do you want your life powered by the pure wind and sun from above? To me, that sounds much more likely to work than trying to bully your way through. After all, everyone who has an opinion has tried bullying other people into agreeing with them–how well has that worked for you? Another way we often try to bring people to what we understand as “truth” relies on rational argument. But of course, such arguments only work if we agree on our premises, which we often don’t. Using metaphor, language, and other unexpected ways into people’s psyches might be a far more effective way to open closed doors. I was just reminded of this by something I saw on Twitter–someone who’s twitter-name was something like @teabaggersuck lamented that as the Tea Party wanes in influence he was losing his identity. A healthier scheme might be to not define your identity as “against” something but instead as “pro” what you DO like: maybe @ilovetruth would be a more sustainable, effective, and trickster-like online identity. Who would argue with @ilovetruth? Who would be in better position to speak with a member of a political party they didn’t agree with; @yourpartyblows or @ilovetruth?

As I think I mentioned before, the figure of the trickster is very related to that of the court jester in mythology (who may or may not have ever existed, but is now a part our cultural landscape nonetheless): the jester, they say, was able to speak the truth under the auspices of “humor” in a way that would have gotten others killed. His powerlessness was exactly the source of his power. Another element of the trickster is that he doesn’t always give us what we want, but he tends to give us what we need. Which of course, is exactly what Columbo delivers to his murderers.

I would argue that in a TV show (or book or movie), each character is an aspect of a whole self. Maybe while each of us has a “murderer” (ie, a part of ourselves so enslaved to appearances and material comforts and societal approval that it will literally or metaphorically kill another piece of ourselves to maintain that appearance), each us also has a trickster-y “detective” who has the ability to make us aware of our murderous ways, to ferret out the truth of who we really are, to kick the murderer to the side and leave us with a clean state for displaying a better, more moral, more interesting self.

Megan pointed out another tricksterish aspect of Columbo–Peter Falk’s role as mediator between the world of art-house cinema (Cassavetes) and the world of “trashy” (I say that with love!) television. Not many people would be able to contain all of these qualities in one vessel. But you bet your ass Peter Falk can! And this adds, I think, to his role on TV as not just a detective, but the detective we seem to remember above so many others.

Anyway, I’m babbling a bit, but I thought it was a such neat idea! Megan, is this at all what you had in mind or did I (as I so often do!) destroy your lovely idea?!

May 21, 2011

didn’t you ever?

by Megan Abbott

Maybe this is happening to you right now… maybe (if you’re older), you remember…when suddenly the kissing isn’t a kid’s game anymore, suddenly it’s wide-eyed, scary and dangerous.

—Tagline for the original poster of Splendor in the Grass

Last night, Turner Classic Movies offered a barnburner of a double feature, Picnic, with William Holden followed by one of all-time favorites, Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass with Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. I have always loved this movie in the way I love so many movies of the 1950s (technically, 1961)—because they are so filled with high-pitched, even florid emotion that the films just seem to be bursting at the seams with psychosexual energy.

This is true in part with Splendor, but it’s a subject matter that could hardly be more suited to it–a teenage couple in love in 1920s Kansas. We get the feeling, from the start, Deenie (Natalie Wood) loves her handsome football player boyfriend Bud (Beatty) just a little more than he does her. (And also that he doesn’t really deserve her.) But both are suffering mightily under the cultural pressures of the day. In the case of Deenie, to be pure.

When her old-fashioned mother asks if she and Bud have “gone too far,” Deenie assures her that she has not. But, twisting with a desire so palpable she seems to be straining to stay in her skin, she asks:

“Mom… is it so terrible to have those feelings about a boy?”

“No nice girl does,” her mother replies.

“Doesn’t she?” Deenie tries again.

“No. No nice girl.”

You can see the shame fall on Deenie’s face. Wood’s performance so delicate. She tries again.  “Didn’t you ever feel that way about Dad?” she asks.

“Your father never laid a hand on me until we were married.Then I… I just gave in because a wife has to,” her mother replies. Then, trying to be gentle, to help Deenie, she adds, ” A woman doesn’t enjoy those things the way a man does. She just lets her husband come near her in order to have children.”

There are many great scenes in the movie—Deenie’s emotional collapse while reciting the Wordsworth poem from the movie’s title derives in class, the unbearably poignant final scene—but last night I was reminded of one of my favorite, smaller moments, early in the film. Deenie and Bud doing that Big Couple Walk down the high school corridor. The football hero and his adoring girlfriend.

Watching Wood here (really, just the first 60 seconds), I can’t recall a scene that so captures the fragility, pride, heat and radiance of first love. Everything that comes after is hard, ugly. But here, anything still seems possible.

May 6, 2011

RIP(pped, &) TORN (Assunder): The Austin Gospel According To Dino McLeish

by craigmmcdonald


Wille Nelson: “I underestimated you, Dino.”

Rip Torn: “All you sons o’ bitches do.”

—Songwriter, 1984

When it comes to B-movies and oft-repeated viewings, Songwriter, directed by Alan Rudolph, probably cracks my Top Ten. The pithy elevator pitch for the flick would likely go like this: “Robert Altman’s Nashville meets The Sting.”

In other words, it’s a minor miracle this film even exists.

Although it’s one of my favorite movies, it’s far from a perfect or even great film. What it is, for me at any rate, is quirky, engaging and comfortable as old boots. Guilty pleasure? Nah…more like a dear, dissolute and semi-dangerous friend you know you shouldn’t spend so much time with, and yet…? Hell, how couldn’t you?

Iconic songwriters Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson essentially play themselves in a film that amiably pitches bricks at the stained glassed windows of Music Row orthodoxy and the soul-siphoning demands the marketplace exacts from creative types who view themselves, first and foremost, as artists. (“Say he did it for the love, but he was not above the money,” Kristofferson’s Blackie Buck stipulates in the film’s opening monologue. The business is, he says, “A day-to-day war between the sorry and the soulful.”)

That songwriter’s soliloquy overlays a montage that deftly and hilariously establishes Willie’s character’s sketchy acumen as a speculator. Doc’s failed enterprises include investing in the semen of transgendered bulls and in fast food restaurants (“Doc Jenkin’s Chicken Fried German Food To Go,” is located hard up-side a KFC).

“Songwriting was making someone a whole of bucks,” a rueful Blackie observes. “Since it wasn’t us, it had to be someone.” Doc opines to music mogul Rodeo Rocky—an east coast sleaze who owns Doc and the rights to all his songs, coming and going—“You always were sentimental when you had your hand in my pocket.”

“I took a couple of uppers, that’s true.”

—Dino McLeish

Appealing as Kris and Willie are (and they have acres of charm to spare in this outing), the crazy, dark heart of the film is Rip Torn’s sleazy music promoter Dino McLeish (“Word’s out you on, Hoss. You don’t pay your talent.”). He’s a cowboy and western suit wearing dervish “who’s been up since Korea.” He has a Mephistophelean mustache and goatee. Dino subsists on amphetamines, booze and a scuffling drive to turn a buck any way he can. Dino is also the kind of operator whose reputation for failing to deliver the goods is so notorious that casual country music fans routinely boo him and chuck their empties at Dino as he jeers and spews profanity from behind chicken wire curtains strung across the stages of the Texas roadhouses he infests.

Doc: “How many tickets did you sell?”

Dino: “7,200.”

Doc: “Building only holds 5,000.”

Dino: “Well, shit, Bubba, airlines do that all the time.”

Dino’s trademark modus operandi: He books a hall and announces a major performer (say, KK’s Blackie Buck or Willie’s “Doc Jenkins”). Dino sells beaucoup tickets, then, the night of the show, he announces the never-booked-headliner has phoned-in sick, and pushes on stage some untalented unknown. Dino attempts this shakedown using Blackie one night in Austin. Blackie turns up at the concert anyway, where he finds Dino’s bait-and-switch has resulted in a busty and vocally impressive Leslie Ann Warren taking the stage.

Thus is born an uneasy partnership and eventual “Big Store” con (ala “The Sting” or James Garner’s Maverick’s “Shady Deal at Sunny Acres.”)—a scheme fostered between Dino, boozy Blackie (“The only reason I drink is so people won’t think I’m a dope fiend!”), Doc and Warren’s fetching “Gilda.”

“Listen, nine times out of ten, you know, they think people start this.

But sheep is good and they know it.

They’ll flirt with you, don’t think they won’t.”

—Dino McLeish

Dino’s an uneasy family man. His wife is a young and randy strayer. Their baby son is named Buster. During a brief provisioning stopover at home (the interior décor of the McLeish crib runs heavy on pleather and neon bar signs), Dino is confronted by his wife and her desire to accompany him to his next bogus concert spectacular.

Angling, Dino pauses. He frames the image of his wife and his child between his hands and says, “Hold it! I wish the vision of how beautiful you all are could be painted on the Great Wall of China. Man, I mean that… We’re family, you know? Know what that means? Deep stuff.” Every ounce of his demeanor says otherwise.

“You’re going to chop them down like dead limbs.”

—Dino McLeish

Devoid of conscience as he is, Dino happily goes along with cash-strapped, contract-shackled Doc Jenkins’ scheme to subvert his required services for an unscrupulous music label by continuing to write hit songs but publish and release those gems as the alleged works of Blackie and Gilda.

Gilda, on the other hand, chafes under this duplicity: she turns to whiskey and drugs in increasingly copious quantities to offset her sense of guilt. Dino sums up their eventual business prospects with his usual blunt panache: “Dang it, Doc…it’s a classic. We put all our chips on a hysterical, neurotic drunk woman; she’s gonna make us rich…or dead.”

Songwriter is lush with clever dialogue, sardonic, memorable turns of phrase, and just enough underlying drama to pierce your heart at unexpected moments.

It also boasts a running commentary about the torturous tension of art and commerce (a motif Rudolph would explore more directly in his films Trouble in Mind and, particularly, The Moderns). As it happens, the film’s embittered take from the artist’s perspective freshly reverberates for anyone endeavoring to make a living with words in the “disruptive technology”-rich atmosphere of the eBook and Internet era.

But Songwriter is also a meditation on the destructive (sometimes seductive) myth of the tortured artist and their resulting top-drawer output. Blackie, strumming his guitar in a Ramada Inn, laments, “Do you suppose a man’s got to be a miserable son of a bitch, all the time, just to write a good song every now and then? That’s a terrible thought.”

Rudolph has indicated he stepped in as replacement director of Songwriter in order to fund his making of closer-to-his-heart Trouble in Mind, also starring Kristofferson. Even if it’s so, Songwriter is very much of a piece with Rudolph’s later 1980s, signature works.

It’s been a long while since the last Rudolph film. The director says it’s because he doesn’t have the heart or stomach to go out there and try and raise the gelt to mount another production.

That’s a damned shame. In this case, I’d welcome his taking the money to do it for the (cockeyed) art.

Doc to Dino: “How’d you do?”

Dino to Doc: “I did pretty good. You got robbed.”



April 28, 2011

viruses, prions and how we decide

by Sara Gran
ROK Protest Against US Beef Agreement (US beef...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been thinking a lot about viruses lately. I think Douglas Rushkoff coined the term “media virus,” or at least he was the first to publish a book with that name. This was a pretty big idea in the eighties, nineties, and early 2000s–before Rushkoff’s book viruses were already a bit of a counterculture meme due to William Burrough’s fascination with them (which I won’t pretend to understand). The idea Rushkoff presents in the book is, if I remember right, somewhat different than the way it was often repeated–a media virus isn’t just a thing that replicates itself. It’s a kind of Trojan Horse that repeats itself without you knowing, under the cover of something else. For example, every few years Calvin Klein comes out with an ad campaign so shocking, risque, and child-porn-y that the ads generate protest and are pulled from TV and magazines. This isn’t an accident. The people who do advertising for Calvin Klein know exactly where that line is, and they cross it on purpose. Your media immune system wouldn’t let in just any old Calvin Klien ad, becuase you’re too hip for that, right? But your immune system will, maybe, let in a story about censorship or child pornography. So it lets in the news about the Calvin Klein ad. But you’re infected all the same–now in the back of your head is forever the idea that Calvin Klien is so groundbreaking and daring their ads get banned from TV. Last year’s media flu shot included the technology to fight “advertising,” but you didn’t get the shot innoculating you from “news items.” Does that make sense? Calvin Klein is using this idea for not-so-productive ends (advertising blue jeans and underwear), but all of us in media and the arts can use this idea for our own ends, too.

Grant Morrison, comic book artist and all-around magician, took this idea a step further: in an interview I read with him he said he wanted his work to be not like a virus, but like a prion. A prion is the thing that causes Mad Cow Disease. A prion is similar to a virus, but deadlier–it can do its damage for years before you even know you have it, and by the time you find out, your brain is permanently altered. There’s no going back. It’s a virus times a thousand.

As many of you know I’m a conspiracy buff.  Generally when we talk about conspiracies we talk about bad conspiracies–people working behind the scenes, in the shadows, to kill presidents and control the world economy and plant stupid ideas about Calvin Klein in our head. But there are good conspiracies, too–people working to plant viruses and prions in our culture that will help us expand our consciousness and expand our conception of what’s possible. I like thinking that we can take technology and tools designed to narrow our perspective and sell us crap and instead use those tools to expand ourselves. I like the idea that even out of the dumbest corporate stuff–a Calvin Klein ad campaign–we can find something to help us change the world.

A few years ago I felt like I was floundering a little and I decided to make a mission statement for my work, which came down to defining my virus. I write my novels because I love to, and I write other stuff for money (and I love writing that stuff, too), but I felt like I needed some clarity about what my mission was. Why was I writing all this shit? To give the world a peak into my filthy little nutjob subconscious? To make money? That’s not a very satisfying plan for life! I think we need something a bit meatier than that to be happy! When I was young and depressed I had a lot of ideas about how literature can offer solace and friendship, and I still have those ideas, but that’s not something you can happen on purpose–you just bare your soul and hope that someone out there, someday, feels less lonely for having seen it. That’s not really a goal you can work towards. And important as that is, I needed something more immediate than that to make sense of my life and my work.

So I made a mission statement like business people do. I’m not gonna tell you what that mission is, because that would take all the fun out of it. But it’s not about business or money. It’s about how (and when) we think and how we understand the world around us. So now, even when I’m working on something for hire–that is, not my original stuff but stuff I’m getting paid to do–I know what my mission is and I sneak my little virus/prion in there when I can. To be clear, I’m not talking about an overt or “subtle” (quotes ’cause it’s never really subtle, is it?) political or social message in my work. I think that almost never works. Instead I’m talking more about spreading a certain point of view about the possibility of things and the nature of the world and its boundaries. Knowing my mission (to spread my virus) has made working more enjoyable and made it easier to make decisions about which projects to take on and what direction to go on in the projects I’m already working on. For example, when I’m offered the chance to work on big mass media projects where I’ll have some creative freedom, that’s almost an automatic “yes” for me, because spreading my virus to the widest possible audience is on mission. And while making money is not the core of my mission, my mission is better served if I’m solvent. I always have a million things I want to write about, and I’ve always been a little frustrated about having to narrow these impulses down–there just isn’t time for me to pursue every creative project I’d like to. Now that’s much easier; of all my ideas (assuming I’m attracted to all of them equally) I pick the ideas that are on mission to work with. If I’m overwhelmed in a book and don’t know where I’m going, my first question is how the story is best served. But if there’s more than one answer to that question, as there often is, I can narrow it down further by asking which direction best serves my mission.

Of course, if I really wanted to work on an idea that didn’t align with my mission, I wouldn’t hesitate–the point of this exercise is to serve my writing process, not hinder it. As I’ve said before, my New Year’s resolution this year was to put my intuition first in all decisions, and I’ve been sticking to it. And I treat my writing as an art as much as a craft, so my inspiration is also up there in my decision making. So my decision-making hierarchy would be something like survival-> inspiration -> intuition ->  virus-spreading. If all of those things are in line, sweet. If not, I know survival comes first (if I’m living under a bridge that’s not very good for my mission!), then inspiration (in other words, what I feel like doing), than gut instinct/intuition (the two are closely related, so presenting “inspiration” and “intuition” as two categories here isn’t quite correct, but it’s the closest I can come), then the chance to spread my virus. Of course, other factors also come into play–possible collaborators, time and space constraints, obviously money–and the math on every project is slightly different. Knowing my mission–to spread my virus–helps make all these decisions easier. If it seems like I should make these decisions based on profitability rather than esoteric instincts, well, that’s actually not possible–it’s pretty hard to predict which projects will bring you out ahead financially in the long term.  So while that’s certainly a factor, it falls more under “intuition” than anything else.

Writers, artists, anyone else out there have a mission statement? Or a virus/prion they use? If not, how do you decide what to do when you hit a fork in the road, creatively and financially?

April 24, 2011

SUCKERPUNCH!

by Sara Gran
Comic-Con 2010 - Sucker Punch panel

Image by popculturegeek.com via Flickr

OK, I promise this is my last post on media for/about teenaged girls for, I don’t know, at least twenty-four hours. But, SUCKERPUNCH! SUCKERPUNCH! SUCKERPUNCH!

I thought this movie was tons of fun, and I had no idea how much people were hating this movie until my friend Tom Piccirilli mentioned it on twitter. Since then I’ve been skimming the reviews, which are abysmal. Fine, don’t like it. But what strikes me here is the strange and assured claim that this movie is sexist, misogynist, anti-girl, and has set us women back thirty thousand years. “Snyder is just a big boy with lots of toys. These, unfortunately, include his actresses.” I can’t imagine referring to my fellow grown women as “toys,” but we are, as always, assured that it’s the filmmaker, not the critics, who has a problem with women. “There certainly are no characters…It’s as if Snyder saw Inception while drunk or high and immediately sat down to write Sucker Punch…The actresses were apparently chosen more for their physical attributes than for their thespian talents or box office appeal. First, I admit I’m astonished that someone thought Inception had characters. Second, I’ll say it again–it’s the filmmaker we’re supposed to think is misogynist here? Seriously? I mean, true, very little dialogue here, but I was thinking that was because it’s an action movie, not because the girls weren’t good actors. The filmmaker, Zak Snyder, hired these women and paid them presumably millions of bucks to be in this film. It’s the critic, not the director, who has dismissed them in one clean stroke.

I think the critics are completely wrong here. Yes, there are girls in cute outfits, sexy girls, hot girls. It’s saddening to realize for how many critics, professional and amateur, the girls are now somehow reduced or degraded due to their attractiveness. Sure, we’d all like to see more movies where fat middle-aged people take home the prize (or at least we pretend we do, because when people make those movies very few of us actually go see them), but this isn’t that movie, and it isn’t supposed to be that movie. More to the point, I don’t think the fact that the girls are sexually attractive means that the girls are bad, or “unfeminst” (whatever that means, and truthfully I don’t really care), or “unrealistic,” or in any other way unworthy heroines. Babydoll, our heroine, is a classic Joseph-Campbell-ian hero, a point every reviewer, even those few who liked the film, seem to have missed. She is, as all great action heroes are, on The Path.

Being an object of men’s sexual desire is an almost universal experience for young women. It’s sweet when it’s the boy next door. When it’s your teacher or the boy-next-door’s dad, it’s not so sweet. It can be frightening and it can be a very shaming experience. I don’t mean to overly simplify what can be a complicated relationship. But often inappropriate attraction from men (in part because, for mysterious reasons, no one warns you about all the creepiness to come once you hit, say, twelve) can leave a girl feeling ashamed or as if she herself is the one who has crossed a boundary or done something wrong. It’s an experience that often leaves girls feeling like they’ve been kicked out of the club–the club of “nice” girls, the club of “ordinary” teens who don’t have to deal with full-grown men and their often frightening (to a young girl) sexual desires, the club of kids who are still kids. I guess the critics would like us to think this phenomena sprung full-grown, like Athena, from Zack Snyder’s mind. Do they think men don’t hit on girls? That that’s a directorial flourish? I think it’s powerful for girls to see, up on the screen, girls who have had this experience and aren’t ruined, passive victims but active and strong agents of their own destiny.

We all know that, generally, when we see such girls in films–girls who have been sullied with the stain of male desire, as if we all haven’t been so stained–they’re victims. Even in the most compassionate film, they exist to be rehabilitated into good girls again. Megan touched on this in her conversation with Gillian Flynn in the LA times. The only hope for these girls is to somehow de-sexualize themselves, as if such a thing were possible, or desirable, for any human.

But as all of us not-so-nice-girls know, rehabilitation doesn’t always work. That’s why Suckerpunch is great. The girls in this movie are both sexualized beings and action heroes–true, in real life I hope for a wider range of motion for all of us, but this isn’t that movie. The movie takes place in a series of collapsing/alternating realities, and in one, the girls are prostitutes, forced against their will to work in a kind of brothel/netherland/nightclub, unable to escape. A new girl comes in and leads them to try to save themselves, as she does in the other realities these girls inhabit. The girls fight for their own freedom and for each other. The girls sacrifice themselves to save each other.  As anyone who’s read my work knows, I do love a hooker with a heart of gold. But to see a girl who is explicitly portrayed as being a prostitute (ie, a girl who is “dirty,” “spoiled,” etc, as so many girls feel) take one for the team–not for the man in her life, not for the big brave detective (and don’t get me wrong, I love that story, too)–but for the other girls; well, I think that’s meaningful. I think it says something kinda cool and I’m not sure I’ve seen it before. Likewise the girls in this movie, though not perfect, are brave and loyal and stand up for each other. Every review I’ve seen, ironically, writes about the girls in terms of how attractive they are to teenaged boys (and the director). And yet in their accusations of sexism, they all seem to have completely glossed over the actual females they claim to be sticking up for. Because the girls in the movie, unlike the critics, don’t really seem to care about boys or sex or outfits at all. They seem to care about fighting for their mental and physical freedom, which develops into a fight for their lives. That seems to be where the girls are. It’s the critics who seem nearly obsessed with the fact that these girls are “hot,” and therefore somehow–what? Not feminist enough? Degraded? Impossible to take seriously? I don’t feel that way about attractive human females, and I bet you don’t, either.

The other really cool thing in this movie is the whole set-up, from beginning to end, is a bit of a trick–who you think is the star, isn’t. Again, one of the girls has/will sacrified herself for one of the others. A lot of reviews I read trashed this story line for its “fake profundity.” I rarely read criticism but in the little I do, this clever li’l analysis to be rearing its head a lot. An early review of  my own book, in fact, called my detective “self-important” (thanks, Kirkus!). It’s somewhat shocking how you can pretty much guarantee at this point that any attempt in pop culture to go even an inch deeper than, say, a typical episode of Matlock will result in a steady stream of insults. I actually think this narrative twist was, if not profound per se, thought-provoking, and certainly a little narrative jag I haven’t seen before.

Suckerpunch? Yes, SUCKERPUNCH!

April 6, 2011

Wolves & wolfmen; Red Riding Hood, girls, and uncomfortable critics

by Sara Gran
Little Red Riding Hood, illustrated in a 1927 ...

Image via Wikipedia

There’s this town I’ve always wanted to visit. It’s somewhere on the border of England and Germany, right about where France meets Ireland. This town is deep in the woods–almost more of a settlement–where people live in stone houses with kitchen herb  gardens and chickens and goats roam in the town square. In this town it is always between, say 1400 and 1700. Wise old women brew herbal concoctions at the full moon (before they were all burned as witches, of course) and brave young boys and girls explore the woods. Farmers plant in accordance with moon and while there might be a Christian whitewash, this town is definitely pagan. If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed–it’s just the May Queen. In the spring there are maypoles and at yuletide there’s hot stew and divination for the new year with bones and sticks.

Of course, this place doesn’t exist, and it never really did. From what I gather, Ye Olde Europe was never really that cute, and the Druids weren’t necessarily so smart. And while Europe was, surely, pagan, those people burned as witches weren’t necessarily wise women or cunning folk or magicians–they were just the town oddballs, scapegoats, and wackjobs. But despite its lack of actual existence, this little Medieval town looms large in our psyche and our popular culture. Led Zepplin sang about it, Wicker Man took place there, and modern-day witches created a religion (Wicca) after it. This place–and I think most of all, its close proximity to the woods–fills some kind of a hole for us, a fantasy past-future where people lived in harmony with the phases of the moon and understood plants and spoke the language of birds and had yet to be corrupted by citified ways. And for those of us of European ancestry, it’s a way to indulge in these fantasies without any issues of appropriation or cultural theft spoiling the fun, as some of us might indulge in “othering” fantasies about, say, Native Americans. To be clear, though, although it’s an easy thing to make fun of, I think these fantasies are healthy.  I think it’s good for us to imagine a way of life different from this one, and I think it’s useful to envision how others might have done it before. We shape our reality around our daydreams, and this is a particularly charming one. I wouldn’t at all mind if it were real.

Which is why I think the critics, as they so often do, completely missed the point of Red Riding Hood, which I saw a few weeks ago and thought was a swell good-bad film. It certainly wasn’t high art, but I enjoy a bad movie that enjoys its badness and lack of pretention. But the critical reaction had a nasty edge to it that seems reserved for movies that hit a nerve (as the wonderful Ray Banks cracked to me on Twitter the other day, “Hope Peeping Tom doesn’t ruin your career like it did Michael Powell’s.”). For example, lot of critics commented on Red Riding Hood’s “unrealistic” sets. “Unrealistic” of what? Not a realistic representation of your fantasy Europe? There’s no “real” to adhere to here. It’s a fantasy of a myth, and the movie should be forgiven for having some fun with that. Likewise, the comparisons to Twilight (same director) completely missed the mark–sure, a young woman with two love interests does suggest a Twilight reference, but are people really that simplistic (I’m referring both to the characters and the critics here)? The real Twilight comparison, if you can come to terms with the fact that all young women are not interchangeable, is Catherine Hardwicke‘s lovely sense of trees, fog, and water, and her understanding of the agency, intelligence, and curiosity of young women, even in a silly, entertaining, fantasy.

Yes, like Wicker Man, it is a movie that enjoys its camp and fantasy. More interesting to me was the psychosexual relationship between Riding Hood and the wolf, who is in this movie a wolfman–a big distinction, especially for Riding Hood! The wolf doesn’t just want to eat Red, he wants to take her away and live with her–and when this comes out, Red is, as us girls often are, put to shame for the sin of being more attractive than we ought to be. In a haunting scene in this admitted fluff-fest, an iron mask is put on Red’s face, her riding cape–now her “harlot’s robe” –over her shoulders. When the true identity of the wolf is revealed it makes a sad, sick kind of sense, one you wish you didn’t recognize but ladies, you will. And when you see who Red ends up with–again, it makes sense in a way you sort of wish it didn’t. “Bad” movies and books (yes, I will again refer to V.C. Andrews!) often seem to be able to sneak this stuff in under the radar in a way that hits home more than “high art” can. And this seems to make critics squirm in their seats and bring out the scalpel.

People smarter than me have commented lately on the strong young women in recent films. When I was a girl, girls and women in movies and on TV often weren’t exactly people. They were deaf, mute, and blind; they were purely passive, receptors of desire with no agency, no hopes, and no backtalk–perhaps one reason so many of us ladies were drawn to the movies of the thirties and forties. Whenever I think of this topic I think of Three’s Company, a TV show I could write a book about (and will someday!)–it was constantly on in reruns when I was a child and I’m sure I’ve seen every episode a few times. Chrissie on Three’s Company (the highly intelligent Suzanne Sommers, who now writes somewhat technical books on alternative cancer treatments) was a pure incarnation of this type of female–people would make comments about her abundant breasts directly in front of her, to her face, and she seemed neither to hear nor understand them (is there some fancy academic/critical  name for this phenomena of female deaf-muteness?). it was as if her attractiveness was a physical or mental disability. I’m glad girls in movies and tv shows have sentience now, at least as much as anyone in mass media does. Now, maybe the critics could start trying to tell them apart…

April 4, 2011

hitch your wagon

by Megan Abbott

Recently, I experienced a glamorous moviestar sighting at the airport.  After getting off a very long flight (complete with a crying baby whose strangled, strobing caterwauls lasted about six hours), we all entered a long passageway into the airport. Suddenly, at the foot at the gate, a pair of handsome airport officials swooped in to help a tall blonde passenger with her luggage. As they offered no such help to anyone else, you could tell the woman was very special.

And she was. Turning around several times as she waked, chatting amiably with the offiicials and her own two pre-teen, lushly dark-blonde children, she walked along the breezeway with the breezy confidence of someone for whom life appeared only to have kissed and nuzzled.

Uma Thurman. And not as tall as I’d guessed but with a radiance that was impossible to miss. The radiance that comes not just from beauty but from some other place that has to do with the peculiar power of starriness. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Unlike the celebrities you might see on TMZ, she wore no dark shades, head downturned (which is a conspicuous gesture too, of course). On the contrary, face out, Uma Thurman seemed happy to see the whole world.

Growing up in Michigan, the chances of seeing a celebrity were pretty slim. As a result, when I first moved to New York more than 15 years ago, at the height of the indie movie zenith, seeing Harvey Keitel drinking coffee at Bubby’s in Tribeca, or getting elbowed in the face by a vaguely apologetic Parker Posey, was very exciting.

And I’m not ashamed to admit the kick of energy inside me when I see someone I also feel I know, in some way, from the page, the speakers, the screen. A few years ago, a friend of mine sat next to Russell Crowe at a sushi restaurant and said that, while having no particular attraction to him in the movies, she could barely breathe through the whole meal. She had never realized, she said, how powerful, nay dizzying, a presence he was.

It is now a truism that one of qualities of “star power” is the peculiar alchemy of extraordinariness and familiarity. We envision our stars as utterly special, exceptional creatures and yet we also love to believe they are just like us (though not worse than us–a new trend that has more to do with schadenfreude than stars wherein we love to see certain, perhaps less starry stars do pratfalls, fall out of their dresses, spill coffee on their children).

Star studies” is a newish discipline in film theory that examines the complications of these dynamics–social, economic, aesthetic. My favorite is Richard Dyer, who wrote a famous piece on Lana Turner that I love. Unlike the reputation of academics, he writes from a place of genuine fascination and love, rigor and curiosity. To him, stars speak to the ruling contradictions of our lives–even seeming to make those contradictions disappear. He says, with regard to Turner, he speaks of her unique synthesis of seeming opposites: intensely glamorous sexuality paired with soda fountain ordinariness (indicated by her personal dramas of heartache, maternal woe, domestic horrors, bad men).

The question is, when we spot a star, a real STAR, if the moment matters to us (and I’m sure to many it does not), is it because we bring all the sheen and magic ourselves? Or is it something in them, or some of them? Is there something special, potent that certain “stars” just emanate? Something we want to touch, or just watch, for a moment.

The scholar Patrick Phillips writes:

Stars are the ‘magic figures,’ … the shamans capable of bringing about illusory solutions to real-life difficulties. [The star can offer] a fascinating synthesis of things the audience finds very difficult, if not impossible, to bring together in real life.

Watching them, their ease in the world (or so it seems), the way they can stride through the crowded airport terminal with such comfort in their own skin. We wish for such radiance, we want it. We think maybe we can almost touch it.

*                      *                     *

On my return flight, I spotted another famous person, of a different stripe.  Jonathan Franzen, an author about whom I have deeply ambivalent feelings that I won’t bother you with here (okay, maybe a little–just when I start to like the guy again, he does something like this, wherein Franzen says that, because Edith Wharton was not “pretty enough” to be a society girl like her heroines, she had to punish them in her books). But, in the customs line, he seemed very friendly and I admit I was a little giddy to see him in this way, not at a book festival or event but caught unawares, just living.

I also really, really wanted to see what he was reading but could not. (What might it have been? Perhaps another female-authored novel whose high quality is achieved thanks to the unprettiness of its author?).

April 2, 2011

More thoughts on Peeping Tom: fathers, sons, and the maternal gaze

by Sara Gran

I’m not really interested in exploring gender differences too much–I haven’t found gender to be a useful indicator of anything important about a person, like their honesty, loyalty, integrity, bravery, sense of humor, or the desire to stop the car at yard sales and fruit stands. So I’m going to use as many qualifiers as I’m legally allowed to in the following sentince: I have observed that some men, in many cases, have very different psychological relationships with their parents than some women. Most women I know talk about their parents, especially their mothers, pretty much all the time. We talk and talk and talk about our parents and all the ways they screwed us up and everything they did wrong and everything they did right and how much we love them anyway. Or in some cases, don’t.  And then we get over it and do what we want to do. The men I know almost never talk about their parents, especially their fathers. And when they do, it’s usually in a fairly neutural tone. I can’t think of a time when a straight male friend ever said: “My mother’s scarcity issues have really affected my  ability to manifest,” or “my father praised me for my intelligence but their was always an edge to it,” or “my grandfather beat my mother and so she overcompensated by smothering me.”  There are of course exceptions, but most of my male friends, when they talk about their parents at all, say things like, “My father was a banker,” or “my mother did the best she could,” or “it wasn’t my father’s fault.” I’ve never heard a woman say that.

But these men seem far more haunted by their parents, especially their fathers, than my female friends. Many of my male friends seem to be stuck in a kind of living dialogue with their parents, even long after those parents are gone. It sometimes seems as if their choices in life are determined by a reaction to a specter of these parents, a kind of poltergeist created from the very repression of criticism I’m talking about that knocks around and tells them what to do. And I think this possible-maybe-trend (again, there’s no intent to make a sweeping generalization here) is reflected in Peeping Tom. Mark is haunted by his father’s presence–almost literally, as he lives in his father’s house, has his fathers’ books on the shelves, and watches his father on film. But his father is never quite there. In the filmstrips Mark has of him he’s out of focus (Michael Powell himself played the father, creepily enough) and his voice is given a bit of an echo-y, ghostly, quality.  Helen, Mark’s love interest, lives with her mother (or at least in the room across the hall–I was a little unclear on the specifics) in close quarters: her mother is with her nearly all the time and the two are obviously close. But Helen’s mother doesn’t seem to have much of an influence on her. Mark’s father is long gone, but his influence is, obviously, far more strongly felt. And of course, for either gender, dead parents seem to haunt us more than the living. Maybe it’s harder to talk back to the dead.

Interestingly, Helen’s mother is blind. I don’t think a women would have written it that way. There is a strange way a mother has of looking at a daughter sometimes that can cut to the bone. Many woman friends, in our endless conversations about our parents, have described this to me as a kind of judging stare. It’s when a woman is doing something normal and she looks up and her mother is looking at her with that look and suddenly what she’s doing doesn’t seem normal anymore; it seems like what she’s doing is clumsy and wrong and suddenly she is not real and not solid and empty inside. I’ve only ever seen this mentioned in one book, a strange little Jungian book called Descent to The Goddess, which I still haven’t finished. This is a thing between adult women and their mothers, not children. I’m not a mother and I don’t quite get what this look is all about. I’m not sure it’s as bad as it seems. Maybe it’s more of a projection of daughters than a gaze of mothers. But I don’t think a woman writer or filmmaker would have imagined a blind mother; I think she would have made Helen’s mother sighted, and watching, watching, always watching as Helen and Mark’s courtship progressed. And always, always judging, and never finding Helen just quite exactly right.

By the way, I only watched a few seconds of this TED conference video, but it seems to be a real-life Raising Cain/Peeping Tom. Hasn’t this guy ever watched a DePalma movie?!? (“It wasn’t a box!”)

April 1, 2011

Brian DePalma Film Club Special Field Trip: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom

by Sara Gran
Jacques-Marie-Émile Lacan

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Megan and a few other smart folks suggested that to understand DePalma, you’d want to watch Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. So I did. Wow. As most of you know (I’ve realized most of my readers have a much better film education than I do), this is a movie about a filmmaker, warped by a psychologist father with a sharp gaze, who does some very nasty things in his free time. The DePalma influence is pretty obvious: filming, fathers, girls, murder, pornography, psychology, tension, random murderous phallic symbols (in all senses of the term, I think).

Here’s what you don’t know. I’ve been working on a few Unnanounced Media Projects, as I’ve mentioned before. This is pretty common when you’re a writer with some years and sales and/or attention and/or luck under your belt–people hire you to write stuff that hasn’t been officially announced, so you can’t tell anyone about it. (irrelevant but odd: most of these projects never see the light of day, and since the copyright is usually held by whoever hired you, these projects often dissappear into a black hole of never-happened and never-read). These projects could be comic books, films, advertising projects, ghostwriting–you can imagine the rest.

So I’ve been working on one Unannounced Media Project for about six months now, and the work has picked up speed the past few months–just about the time I’ve been immersing myself in Brian DePalma. But I hadn’t seen Peeping Tom until about a week ago. And in my project, I wrote: three characters who had the same professions and perversions of characters in Peeping Tom, three strange and specific items that are seen in Peeping Tom (I’m sure it will be OK if I say one is a jeweled brooch in the shape of an insect, to give an idea of the level of specificity I’m talking about), and a character who shares a not-everyday name with a character in Peeping Tom, and a number of harder-to-name similarities in tone, style, POV, and pace. One scene in particular could have been entirely lifted from Peeping Tom. Except, of course, I’d never seen it.

For a few years I’ve been interested in the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (who I can’t read at all, because I find him impossible to understand, so I just read about), and in particular one book by a Lacanian psychologist named Annie Rogers called The Unsayable–I’ve mentioned it often. This all reminded me of a story from the book: there was a family where the mother had a terrible secret, one she’d never told anyone, from her childhood. Years later she had a teenaged daughter, and the whole family was in therapy with Annie Rogers, and the mother finally confessed her secret. And the daughter burst out that she’d been having dreams about the incident all of her life.

I think it’s kind of incredible how we’re never saying what we think we’re saying, and we’re never hearing what we think we’re hearing. No matter how conscious you are, we seem to be incapable of really understanding the conversation we’re having with each other and with the world around us. And that’s probably for the best. Until you wake one day and realize you’ve been entirely wrong about exactly every second of your life, which happens pretty often and is always a little odd.